Thursday, October 25, 2007

(Better) Invoicing & Time Tracking for Contractors/Consultants

UPDATE (12/23/2008): More than a year after posting the below, I'm still a happy user of FreshBooks. Gets the job done, is nice & simple, and gets out of my way.

When I set out on my own again, especially once the consulting gigs started to really pick up, I needed a solution to handle invoicing, time tracking, and accounts receivable management. In the past, I'd known myself to procrastinate (gasp!) generating invoices.

The procrastination was really the symptom of something else: I'd never really taken the time to automate the process. I'd started off on the wrong foot to begin with. I was tracking minutes in text files, adding them up manually, etc. Further, even if I'd used a fancy system to track and generate the invoices, I have this apparent aversion to addressing, stamping, and walking to the mailbox. Guess I'm just lazy.

So, a bit back, I spent a few hours seeing what was out there these days. Ultimately I settled on three (hosted Web 2.0-ish, if you will) solutions as the major candidates that met my needs:

After getting test accounts with each of them I ultimately went with FreshBooks. The main thing that did it for me was that FreshBooks allowed me to send paper invoices without actually touching a stamp, envelope, or printing anything. Yep, they mail it for me and even include the return envelope with my address!

I do actually send all of my clients e-mail invoices -- since that has become much more acceptable these days -- avoiding hard copy whenever possible. However I like having the option and it can also be handy when someone is taking their time paying..

Technically, FreshBooks doesn't e-mail the invoices but sends out an e-mail with a URL that contains the invoice. While others include the invoice in the actual e-mail, I have found it nifty that FreshBooks' approach allows me to see who has viewed their invoice (and they even provide an RSS activity feed to track client invoice reads!).

Since going with FreshBooks, all three billing solutions have added plenty of functionality. And Cashboard, which was in beta when I first looked at it, is now out of beta. I may re-look at each of them at a later date, but I really am pretty satisfied with FreshBooks for the moment.

If you suspect you spend too much time on invoicing, take a look at what's out there these days!


Sunday, October 21, 2007

(Still) Seeking Good Ethiopian Coffee

My brother (and his former employer) introduced me to Ethiopian coffee a bit back. The drinkable kind, not to be confused with the really well named Ethiopian soccer (football) team. :) Both fortunately and unfortunately, wine, beer, and coffee have a lot in common.... There are endless origins, variances from lot to lot, different year crops, etc. And the capabilities of the roaster and the way it is handled from the vine to the cup all matter a LOT. The best and most distinct tasting coffees can usually only be found at smaller coffee roasters (Larger roasters and chain coffeehouses can't scale the more unique coffees due to their volume requirements).

Anyhow I'm pretty certain I was spoiled and introduced to a really good sample during a very very good year. Lately, I've tried to replicate that flavor with newer lots both from self-roasted coffee (from Sweet Maria's) and various coffeehouses. I've been drastically disappointed.

One common attribute often cited with Ethiopian coffee is a "blueberry" flavor element. I'm not talking about an artificially flavored coffee here, this is a natural characteristic. Well, there's none of that -- or at least nothing like what I got from the Ethiopian coffee from 2DogsCoffee (where my brother use to work) a year or more ago.

The good news is that Sweet Maria's just got in two new Ethiopian's:

That's good because the last three I bought a month or two back weren't doing my memory justice (note: part of it may be my self-roasting not being up to par -- I'm an amateur roaster).

Looks I'll be placing another order for some samples soon!

For those curious about self-roasting: It's easy! If you can pop corn than you can roast coffee. I've been known to roast my own coffee from time to time. First with a regular old popcorn air popper and now with a Fresh Roast Plus, which is still really just a glorified popcorn popper. Takes about five minutes. Sweet Maria's (where I buy my raw unroasted green coffee beans) has a resource if want to read more about roasting your coffee.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sanitize All Possible Inputs

If you write applications, well, it's not just public web form input that needs to be sanitized...



Tuesday, October 9, 2007

California and SLO County School Connectivity (and Ideas!)

According to this data posted by K12HSN, 17% of schools state-wide are connected to the Internet (and, in turn, Internet2) at 100 Mbit/s or higher. What I found nifty is, upon zooming into the local schools here in San Luis Obispo County, that number jumps to 67% (fifty seven out of eighty four). You can see other data for SLO here. (You can zoom in on other areas of California there as well). With this foundation, some intriguing possibilities now exist.

Quick background: K12HSN is a state program funded by the California Department of Education, providing Network/Internet connectivity and related services to K-12. Through K12HSN, schools get access to CENIC/CalREN and, as a result, Internet2 as well as, of course, the Internet. CalREN, the California Research and Education Network, is specially designed to meet the unique requirements of these communities, and the majority of the state's K-20 educational institutions are connected to it. CENIC oversees CalREN and coordinates other related services for California public educational institutions. Internet2 is an R&D platform, for various research institutions both public and private (and, if you're under the impression that Internet2 is just about high speed connectivity, a bunch of network geeks, and some talk about tele-medicine, look here as well as as some of the following links to see how it's being used in the performing arts).

With this as a backdrop, interesting possibilities have emerged for local K-12 students. Here are some ideas:

  • The SLO County Office of Education could host an Internet2 Day where research projects and applications are demonstrated to promote awareness and spur ideas in the minds of researchers (read: students, teachers). Projects/applications discussed and demo'd might include collaboration, health sciences, arts & humanities, and science & engineering. It would reach across all disciplines.
  • The "economies of scale" necessary to have live expert guest lecturers teaching students statewide via video conferencing (and here). I'm talking about having the top professors, researchers, artists, politicians, etc. speak live to students across the state and have the capacity to take real-time Q&A from students. Sure beats watching a passive recorded video on television! And it's sure to intrigue students who might easily overlook great thinkers sitting still on a textbook page in front of them. You get the benefits of serendipity, live action, interaction, and young minds all rolled into one. This same infrastructure could be used to publicize to the larger student body things like state-wide competitions, which, at least traditionally, only the local and regional winners of contests have been able to visit when they head off to compete at the higher level. Why not spread the inspiration around?
  • Got more ideas? Post 'em!
How about it?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Can Technology Geeks Be (Good) Managers?

If you are a technology geek currently serving as a manager, you better figure out how to become a business manager, if you intend to lead a successful IT department, group, team, or project. You owe it to yourself, your direct reports, whomever you report to, your colleagues in other departments, and your company. You will get a bigger budget, better compensation, more respect from all of your constituents and stakeholders, greater cooperation for your projects to help them be more successful, and greater satisfaction from your career.

It's not all bad for the technology geek turned manager though. If you can grasp the business side, by taking a bit of initiative to learn it, and combine that with technology savvy (even if you let your direct reports worry about the deep down details) you can have the best of both worlds. The last thing technology geeks want are clueless managers. It doesn't matter whether they are clueless about business or about technology -- they are still going to make things more difficult, albeit unintentionally, for their employees.

IT managers should know how to write business plans, prepare budgets, use financial concepts competently such as: the difference between cash flow and profit as well as grasping present and future value calculations, tie projects to business objectives, communicate and be held accountable in business terms, systematically assess and explain risk and uncertainty in ways that relate to the overall business, and communicate with non-technology management in regards to strategy.

This doesn't mean you need an MBA. If you don't understand all of these concepts there are options:

  • Take a basic accounting course (or two) at your local community college
  • Sit down with your CFO, controller, or accountant and ask for some tutorial sessions
  • Buy some books. Ask your CFO, controller, or account for some recommendations (and get them to promise to answer your questions if you take the initiative by reading the books they suggest).
  • Ask your CEO if you can peak at the organization's overall business plan. Afterwards consider and discuss how your department, group, or project fits into the bigger picture. Ask if there are ways you might better consider and communicate your group's vision, goals, successes (and, yes, failures too) as part of the bigger picture.
  • I'll also try to highlight, in a future post, some specific resources that have helped me out.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Relationship Management for Non-Profits (Software)

This software package, CiviCRM, looks promising. It is an implementation of a "Customer Relationship Management" solution, but for organizations that don't really have customers in a commercial sense but still have plenty of relationships to manage. It's a bit like SugarCRM or but designed for not-for-profit type entities.

If you are involved in a non-profit agency that takes donations or has volunteers, this software may help you optimize your relationships, boost your effectiveness, and provide some dashboard like functionality for managing your organization. Well, that's the theory anyhow. :-)

It appears to have an active community and developers. And a good amount of documentation, a FAQ, a blog, and user forums. All signs that bode well for a sustainable open source project, since many applications die off without achieving critical mass.

I have not used it. I ran across it while researching some other software. Since I know folks involved in managing several non-profits, I wanted give them a heads up to explore further. If anyone takes a closer look please let me know how it goes!

CiviCRM: A Free and Open Source eCRM Solution

CiviCRM is the first open source and freely downloadable constituent relationship management solution. CiviCRM is web-based, open source, internationalized, and designed specifically to meet the needs of advocacy, non-profit and non-governmental groups.

CiviCRM is a powerful contact, fundraising and eCRM system that allows you to record and manage information about your various constituents including volunteers, activists, donors, employees, clients, vendors, etc. Track and execute donations, transactions, conversations, events or any type of correspondence with each constituent and store it all in one, easily accessible and manageable source.

CiviCRM is created by an open source community coordinated by CiviCRM LLC, and the 501c3 non-profit Social Source Foundation.

There is a (amateur but it'll give you an idea) Introduction to CiviCRM video and some others here.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Local company, Shopatron, gets $6m in Additional Funding

Congratulations to the folks over at Shopatron, a nifty San Luis Obispo (California) based company. Until relatively recently, they were called Firepoppy while Shopatron was the name of their primary product. They have picked up some additional capital and continue to be working hard on solving problems in their niche.

Shopatron solves problems for manufacturers that don't or cannot sell their products directly, namely connecting their customers (say, visiting their web site) with their retailer/distributor network. They do it in a way that is conducive to the customers desire to "buy now", with less hops to jump through, and make it a win-win all around (win-win-win, uh, win, really) .

It's one of those niches that makes a lot of sense once you hear about it and they've been working hard at perfecting it for a number of years now. And, since they are so focused on solving one particular problem space (and it's a real one at that, as best as I can tell), rather then solve every interesting opportunity that they run across haphazardly, they are sure to be successful.

Congrats Ed, Sean, Dave, and the rest of the crew over there.

Further Related: Links:

Digium (Asterisk) Is Sending Busy Signals

Digium, the commercial company behind the open-source Asterisk IP PBX, has been ultra busy of late. They came out with a self-contained hardware based Asterisk appliance targeted at developers, telephony carriers, etc. to build custom IP PBXes for their customer bases. They followed this with a full blown out-of-the-box installable hardware IP PBX appliance (the AA50) intended for the mass market. They bought SwitchVox, a leading IP PBX appliance vendor with some nice innovative user interface and functionality features, then announced a deal with 3Com who will be OEM'ing their appliance as the foundation of their IP PBX offering.

Digium, has been selling components, such as as cards to interface between the traditional phone network, development and support services for Asterisk, and commercial licenses for vendors OEM'ing Asterisk code into their own PBXes and other telephony applications for several years now. Now, it's time to get serious I guess.

Further Notable Links:

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A Promising New Book: The Pragmatic CSO (Chief Security Officer)

Last week I ran across a book I had not seen before. From the looks of things it reasonably could have been entitled "The Pragmatic CIO/CTO/IT Director/IT Engineer/IT Consultant". It is actually called The Pragmatic CSO. CSO stands for Chief Security Officer. Even if your organization doesn't actually have a CSO, there is a de facto one -- whomever is in charge of IT.

Since anyone within the IT group involved in spec'ing solutions needs to have a connection to the underlying business drivers in order to get buy-in from management for their project to proceed, this book ought to be useful to IT manager and geek alike. At least those that want to see their budget requests approved. :-)

This appears to be a promising resource with some good food for thought and practical approaches all collected together in one place. And, to boot, the approaches that look to be discussed should be readily applicable beyond IT security, to any IT project. No IT project proposal will get very far without a business case.

The book's web site is It is available as a regular book or electronically. You can get a sample section e-mailed to you from the web site. Or you can d/l the introduction chapter directly here:

I have only read through the Table of Contents and Introduction and poked around at a few reviews at security blogs I monitor. If anyone else gets a copy and reads through more of it before me, please share your comments.